UNION COUNTY — After experiencing a decline in the first decade of this century Union County’s population is expected to increase to more than 31,000 and the county gain nearly 2,000 new jobs by 2050.
CONNECT Our Future is an initiative undertaken by the Catawba Regional Council of Governments in South Carolina and the Centralia Council of Governments in North Carolina. The purpose of the initiative is to gather information from the public in the greater Charlotte region to help officials in those counties plan for the growth that is expected to occur in the region over the next 40 years.
The greater Charlotte region is composed of the North Carolina counties of Anson, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Rowan, Stanly, and Union, and the South Carolina counties of Chester, Lancaster, Union, and York. By 2050, the region’s population is expected to grow from 2.4 million to 4.2 million, a gain of 1.8 million. The increase in population will be accompanied by job growth with the region gaining an additional 860,000 jobs during that time.
Union County will share in this projected growth, reversing over the next 40 years the decline in both population and jobs it experienced between 2000 and 2010.
Cole McKinney, Regional Initiatives and Technology Director for the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, said Wednesday that while Union County’s population stood at nearly 30,000 in 2000, by 2010 it had declined to less than 29,000. By 2050, however, McKinney said the county’s population will grow to 31,100, an increase of 7.2 percent.
As for jobs, McKinney said that in 2000 the county had 12,800 but by 2010 the number had fallen to 9,200. He said that by 2050 the county will have 11,000 jobs, a 19.6 percent increase.
Reversal Under Way
The reversal of its losses in population and jobs the county experienced between 2000 and 2010 is already occurring.
In February, Union County Council approved a resolution supporting a Transit Feasibility Study to “determine the vitality of public transit in the county emphasizing jobs and jobs related training transportation and rural public transit opportunities.”
The resolution and an accompanying report on the scope of the study compiled for the county by the Catawba Regional Council of Governments pointed out that economic development has helped spur growth in the county’s population at the beginning of the current decade.
The report states that “while Union County has experienced a decline in population in recent years, it should be noted between 2010-2011, the population increased by 5.9 percent from 27,084 in 2010 to 28,679 in 2011. This is due largely to economic development events that occurred in the county and the region.”
That economic development is also reflected in the arrival of new industry and the expansion of existing industry in the past five years.
The report quotes Union County Development Board Executive Director Andrena Powell-Baker who attributed the reduction in the county’s unemployment rate to the creation of 738 new jobs in the county within the past five years and the creation of hundreds more within driving distance of Union.
The job growth the county has experienced during that time has helped drive down its unemployment rate which, as of February, stood at 7.7 percent, the first time in years it has been less than 8 percent.
Where will the growth projected for the next 40 years occur in Union County and what form will it take and should it take?
On Monday, McKinney hosted a CONNECT Our Future forum at the Union County Advanced Technology Center to give Union County residents the opportunity to review and comment on four growth options developed by the initiative over the past 18 months.
Growth Option 1
Maintain Suburban Focus
This shows how the region might develop if current zoning and land use practices are continued, or if current community plans are not followed.
• Most new housing and jobs are in large subdivisions or employment centers located outside existing cities and towns, on farmland or open space.
• Most people need cars to get from their houses to jobs, shopping or recreation.
• The region’s most urban areas provide opportunities for people to use mass transit, walk or bike from homes to nearby work, play, or parks.
• Water, sewer, roads, schools, and other infrastructure investments will be focused on supporting the new growth outside existing cities/towns.
Under this option, the growth in Union County would take the form of suburban office, commercial and industrial development in Union and Jonesville and the development of suburban neighborhoods around the municipalities and along the US 176 corridor linking them.
Growth Option 2
Follow Community Plans
This shows how the region might develop if adopted community plans are followed.
• Most new housing and jobs are within existing cities and towns, but many parts of the region continue suburban or rural growth.
• Limited transit is available in urban areas. People in the rest of the region will rely on cars to meet travel needs.
• Housing choices and types will stay about the same as today.
• Farmland will be preserved in some counties.
• Some communities will shift infrastructure investment to support growth within existing cities/towns, while other communities will invest more in infrastructure to support “outward growth.”
Under this option, growth in Union County would still take the form of suburban office, commercial and industrial development in Union and Jonesville but suburban neighborhood development would be concentrated in the Union area.
Growth Option 3
Grow Cities, Towns, Centers And Transit
This shows how the region might develop using all the ideas that have emerged from the public throughout CONNECT.
• Most growth happens within existing communities. There are more areas — called “activity centers” — where people can walk, bike, shop, access parks and use transit for daily trips.
• Urban, suburban, and rural living choices remain available, since land outside activity centers is open space, farmland or rural living.
• Mass transit serves some counties, and other counties have express bus connections.
• Infrastructure investments focus mostly on growth within cities/towns, or supporting new activity centers.
Under this option, growth in Union County would be concentrated in and around the City of Union and include the development of suburban neighborhoods; suburban office, commercial and industry development; and mixed-use, walkable centers and neighborhoods.
Growth Option 4
Focus On Regional Transportation
This shows how the region might develop based on ideas of people who came to the community growth workshops held in each county. It addresses the great interest in regional transit, transportation connections, and walkability.
• Most new residents will live in the many “activity centers” in or near existing communities. Housing, work, and shopping options are close by.
• People are able to walk, bike, or use local bus service or transit to get around.
• There are many opportunities for suburban or rural living in most counties.
• Region-wide, major investments in transit means people can travel between most counties using transit and roads. Local bus service is also available at destinations.
• There’s more focus on supporting infrastructure systems within cities, towns and activity centers.
Under this option, growth in Union County would be concentrated in and around the City of Union and involve suburban office, commercial and industrial development and the growth of suburban neighborhoods; and in the Lockhart area where it would take the form of mixed use walkable centers and neighborhoods.
Even with the growth that’s expected to occur, the majority of the greater Charlotte region will remain rural living-open space under three of the four growth options.
The region will still be 61 percent rural living-open space under the Follow Community Plans Option; 63 percent rural living-open space under the Grow Cities, Towns, Centers and Transit Option; and 64 percent rural living-open space under the Focus On Regional Transportation Option.
Under the Maintain Suburban Focus Option the region will be divided equally between rural living-open space (50 percent) and the rest of the forms of development (50 percent).
In all four options, Union County remains even more overwhelmingly rural living-open space outside the Union and Jonesville areas and, in the Maintain Suburban Focus Option, the US 176 Corridor, and the Focus on Regional Transportation Option, Lockhart.
Union County residents who were not able to attend Monday’s forum can still comment on the growth options and state which they feel best meets the needs of the county by going online at http://ConnectOurFuture.metroquest.com. The initiative is hoping to have all the information gathered by April 15 and will then compile the information collected at the county level and turn it over to the policymakers in those counties so they can determine how well their existing plans align with the public’s priorities.